Evolution of “Tree of Witness”

The Inspiration

Three years ago, my husband, my father and I had occasion to visit New York City for a few days, and during a walk through Central Park, a particular tree caught my attention. I walked around and around it for several minutes, marveling at all its textures, colors, shapes, and hollows. I have no idea what species it was, because it was so deformed by its hard life. I took several photos of it from all sides, because I knew I had to draw it someday.


My inspiration: a tree in Central Park, NYC

Fast forward to February 2019. The upcoming March 31 entry deadline for the CPSA International Exhibition motivated me to finally tackle this tree. To be worthy of inclusion in the highly-competitive show, I need to create something that is both technically challenging and has something to say. And this tree has a lot to say. It took several days for me to decide which of my photos to use for reference, because the tree has no “quiet side”. There was sooooo much detail, and I wanted to include it all!

Here’s how I approached this project, and how I solved a significant problem with it.

The Problem

Normally, I complete the background of a drawing first, because it establishes the environment that affects the colors and values in the subject. But I had a big problem: I  didn’t like the background in any of my reference photos; it drained the drama out of the tree. It had to go. But I had no ideas for a worthy replacement, and I needed to get started. I figured I could ponder the background, sift through my photo library, and come up with an idea by the time the tree itself was finished. So I moved ahead with the tree.

Drawing the Tree

Once I established very basic outlines on my 15″ x 20″ sheet of Stonehenge paper, my first step was to place the absolute darkest dark areas. They became my landmarks to prevent getting lost as I worked. Then I lightly blocked in the overall base tree colors with Caran d’Ache Museum Aquarelle watercolor pencils and water. This would also help prevent getting lost, and reduce the appearance of speckles of paper peeking through pigment later.

Lacking the background, I used value finders (small holes punched in cards, to isolate corresponding spots of color in reference and drawing) to ensure my values were on target. It was divide and conquer, one section at a time.

I developed the bottom and right sides first because I could reach them easily, then flipped the whole drawing and my reference photo upside down to develop the top and left. This way, I didn’t have to reach far up my drawing table or reach across pristine paper or finished areas to risk scuffing or smudging them. If you’ve never flipped a drawing upside down to work on it, you might think that would make it much harder to get right. But drawing is all about seeing shapes, colors, and textures rather than relying on the shorthand symbols your brain creates for familiar objects, so it works well!

The tree’s huge number of textures, directions, colors, shapes and hollows were  challenging. I soon realized the tree had even more to say since I was “listening” intently. Its title came to me: “Tree of Witness”. A lifetime of witnessing the best and worst of human behavior alters people, so might it also alter a tree? While standing for decades in New York’s Central Park, I’m sure this tree has witnessed a great deal. It wears all that it has lived through.

The Sky Problem Solved

After about 60 hours’ work across 4 weeks, the tree itself was finished. I could no longer postpone a decision about the background. The last thing I wanted was to ruin the work with a lame background! I spent several hours using Photoshop to experiment on my reference photo with half a dozen skies, then slept on it overnight. In the morning, the choice was clear: a sky that evokes a past or pending turmoil as well as some hope, yet doesn’t speak louder than the tree.


The perfect sky for the job

The sky covers less area than the tree, yet seemed to take as long to create, because creating a very smooth texture with multiple layers and soft transitions of color is time-consuming. Once the sky was complete, my personal observations of late-evening ambient light informed me how to adjust the colors of the grassy field and path and create a transition at the horizon to make it all work harmoniously together.


The final result: “Tree of Witness”, 15″ x 20″, Caran d’Ache Luminance and Derwent Lightfast pencils on Stonehenge paper, my own photo references.

The Pencils Used

I used only Caran d’Ache Luminance and Derwent Lightfast pencils, because they are both professional-quality lightfast pencils and I wanted to see how well they work together (the answer to that is: great!)

It’s funny, there are certain colors in any set which, when you first look at them and make a swatch, you think “When would I ever use this odd color?” And then one day you discover that that “odd” color is perfect for here…and here…and here…and just all over the place, and you end up using it more than any of the more basic colors. For this project, those colors turned out to be Luminance “Violet Gray” and Lightfast “Olive Earth”. Violet Gray was important in both the tree and the sky. Olive Earth was important in both the tree and the grass.

All together, besides the initial washes of Caran d’Ache Museum Aquarelles, I used 34 colors in “Tree of Witness”: 28 Luminance and 6 Lightfast. Fully 20 of those colors were used for the tree itself!


What’s Next?

It’s framed under Optium acrylic with a dark neutral mat and simple wood frame, and hanging on my wall, where I’m enjoying it every day. It has been shared on social media. In another month, I’ll know whether it is accepted into this year’s CPSA International Exhibition. Whether or not it ever appears in any show or wins any award, I’m pretty happy with “Tree of Witness”. I’ve given that Central Park tree a voice for its story.

The quest for a Luminance pencil extender

It’s such a simple thing. When a pencil becomes too short to hold comfortably, you don’t want to have to hold it with a claw hand; you want something to make it longer so you can use it up completely. Colored pencils aren’t cheap, so the more length you can use up before it can’t fit in any sharpener anymore, the better.


That’s why pencil extenders were invented. They snugly fit most standard-diameter pencils, and for extra security have either a retaining ring or a screw-on retainer. I’ve amassed quite a variety over time, since the more pencils I use, the more extenders I need. Here are some of my collection:


The problem is, not all pencil brands are “standard” diameter, which is about 7 mm.

Caran d’Ache Luminance and Derwent Coloursoft pencils are a full 8 mm, and no amount of force will make them fit in standard extenders. What to do?

Caran d’Ache used to make a pencil holder to fit, but it’s no longer available. It looked like this:


Derwent sells a pair of extenders, one standard 7 mm, one larger 8 mm one specifically for their Coloursoft pencils. Indeed, the larger one fits Luminance pencils, too! But it’s not available on its own (I asked Derwent), only in the set which retails for a whopping $13.69, and I don’t need any more standard extenders. It’s not practical to continually swap several short pencils around on one or two extenders as I work; each short pencil needs its own extender.


I combed the internet, and found multiple extenders that claimed to fit “up to 8 mm”, bought them, and had to return them all–they didn’t fit.

I posed the question to a group of colored pencil artists.  Some of the suggestions offered, in use by others but no good for me:

  • Super-glue two pencils end-to-end.
    Nope–this would require chopping off the tops. A single Caran d’Ache Luminance pencil is over $4.00, so I’m unwilling to chop anything from its length.
  • Sandpaper the top end’s circumference until it fits in a standard extender.
    Nope–very laborious for every pencil (they’re all made from red cedar), messy, and I’d lose the important color information that’s stamped and painted there.
  • Use a plastic milkshake straw.
    Nope–it’s flimsy and has no heft, and the pencil can easily retreat inside the straw.

Someone mentioned a generic made-in-China extender that fits Luminance, available in packages of five on Amazon, so I ordered them. Well, they sort of fit, very tightly…but not with the screw-on retainers. I’ll keep these extenders and toss the retainers in a drawer, but I’ll have to wrap some tape around the exposed retainer threads to protect my hand.



That’s as far as the silver retainer would go. It’s supposed to slide down the pencil barrel and screw onto the extender.

Finally, fellow artist Katrina Benson offered an ingenious DIY solution. I don’t normally do DIY projects, because they usually require a bunch of time-consuming steps, materials for which I have no other use, and a glue gun (which I don’t own). However, Katrina’s solution required only three things: cardboard bee tubes, wood dowel pins, and Elmer’s glue. Easy and quick! I ordered up the supplies:  5/16″ (interior diameter) large bee tubes for native mason bees, and 8 mm dowel pins. The bee tubes came in a pack of 36 for $10.95 + shipping, the dowel pins in a pack of 75 for $6.50 and shipped free via Amazon Prime. Each bee tube is 6″ long, so it can be cut in half, so these supplies are enough to make 72 extenders for under $23!


When they arrived, I quickly assembled half a dozen: I squirted a bit of glue on a dowel and slid it into a tube until it was recessed about 1/2″ inside. That’s it! After it dried overnight, I tried it on a Luminance. It fit perfectly!


This bee-tube extender hasn’t been cut in half–it was a proof of concept.

I’m so pleased with this solution, I think Katrina ought to get some kind of award for it. It’s cheap and easy to make, sturdy, reusable, leaves the pencil intact, and allows sharpening all the way down to a tiny nub.

Now that’s a big print!

Have you ever been in some corporate office, hotel lobby, or hospital, and noticed big prints of colorful artwork on the walls? Did you ever wonder who made them, who selected them, and how the artists got noticed? I have, many times, and I never had any inkling of how to find out. I fantasized that that could be my artwork on the walls someday, subconsciously brightening the day of passers-by. Except that all of my artwork is much smaller than any of these installations ever are, so it was unlikely to happen.

Fast forward to three months ago. Out of the blue, I received an email from an art consultancy in Austin, TX. I wasn’t even sure what an “art consultancy” was; I had to look it up. It’s a company whose entire business is contracting with corporations, hotels, hospitals, etc. to find suitable artwork for their walls, lobbies, and courtyards. It’s the consultancy’s job to determine what’s appropriate given a client’s culture and a given location in the client’s building, then go find something that fits the bill, and either buy it or get permission to reproduce it, frame it, ship it there, and install it perfectly.

Anyway, here I was: an art consultancy contacted me. They’d found my website. They offered a fee for permission to make one large print of my California Poppy Quintet, for an unnamed client. How large? About 50″ wide. Whoa! The original drawing is only 9.25″ x 16.25″! I momentarily cringed at the thought that my little drawing might look bad when scaled up that much, and the opportunity would be lost. But I checked my full-resolution digital scan file, and it is 600 dpi (dots per inch), which is higher than I usually scan. Some quick calculation:

600 dpi * 16.25 inches = 9750
9750 / 50 in = 195 dpi

Yay! There was resolution to spare! I spent some time in Photoshop making sure there were absolutely no microscopic specks of dust or pigment that would become clods at that huge size.


Then I had an idea:  in lieu of a fee, wouldn’t it be cool to have them make me a duplicate, same size, same treatment? They readily agreed, so I signed the release and gave them the image file.

A few weeks later as the installation time approached, we arranged a time and place for me to pick up my big print. At this point I learned who the client was: the brand-new Google campus in Sunnyale!

I have to digress here to try to describe why the Google location made it a very big deal for me. I’ve been a software engineer for my entire career. I’ve been a software engineer in the San Francisco bay area (Google’s home) about as long as Google has existed. Google has a reputation for being very difficult to get into; they hire a lot of Ivy Leaguers and PhDs and entrepreneurs and genius-level computer scientists who are determined to change the world. Just getting invited for an on-site interview there is a small triumph. I’ve managed that feat twice, but didn’t get an offer. I’m okay with that; I’ve made my long-term mark at other companies. But now, it’s my artwork that finally earned a permanent spot inside Google! The irony!

What a thrill it was to see its installation in a brand new building a few days before it opened. Unfortunately, I was not allowed to take photos of it in situ, in a prominent spot next to a lounge and elevators. I learned that the consultancy installed around 700 artworks in the four multistory buildings in less than a week. They had spreadsheets and radios to keep track of what went where, how it was to be installed, who installed it, who verified it, etc.

Now I have a giant framed print of my fabulous California Poppy Quintet, and I don’t have a wall big enough on which to hang it! Not a bad first-world problem to have.


50″ print, framed to 60″. The frame is still protected in plastic and cardboard; it’s actually a brushed silver color.

Update 1/18/19: I got to visit the Google print on-site!


Wrapping up 2018

2018 has already come and gone. It seems like only a couple of months ago I was writing about the end of 2017. It was another great year!

  • Exhibited in 9 juried shows
  • Won 7 awards
  • Finished 10 new drawings
  • Taught 6 workshops (3 in Palo Alto, CA; Milpitas, CA; Los Altos, CA; Tucson, AZ)
  • Gave 3 demos and presentations
  • Interview featured on Creative Catalyst’s blog (https://ccpvideos.com/blogs/news/interview-with-artist-denise-j-howard)
  • Authored an article for the UKCPS quarterly journal Talking Point
  • An art consultancy chose one of my pieces to print large for a new Google campus building in Sunnyvale, CA
  • Continued my duties as CPSA national Marketing Director, with trips to Dallas and Chicago
  • 101 Textures in Colored Pencil was nominated for Book of the Year by Colored Pencil Magazine

All while still working full-time. Whew!

In addition to the activities, I took advantage of the going-out-of-business liquidation of my local Aaron Brothers Art and Framing store to buy mat board, museum glass, and their wall-mounted glass/mat cutter for pennies on the dollar. I have no good place to put them yet, but I couldn’t let them get away.

It has now been a year since the publication of 101 Textures in Colored Pencil, and over 11,400 copies have sold! That may sound puny compared to a New York Times best seller, but it’s terrific for such a narrow topic. Hardly a week goes by without mention of it on colored pencil groups on Facebook, all favorable. It’s very gratifying to know it is so helpful to so many; it makes all the hard work worthwhile. It’s been surreal to find my book on the shelves in bookstores and art supply stores near and far, and amusing to have Amazon advertise my own book to me on Facebook.

My “Talk Art” episode from 2014 has now had 14,600 views. Again, not the multi-millions that viral YouTube vloggers get, but pretty respectable for a narrow-interest subject.

The most unusual and exciting new experience of the year was being contacted by an art consultancy. An art consultancy is a company that seeks, gathers and installs artworks for corporate offices, hospitals, etc. In my case, they were interested in making a very large (>50″ wide) framed print of my California Poppy Quintet for a client here in the San Francisco Bay area. Fortunately I had scanned the original at 600 dpi, which made the enlargement reasonable. Then I learned where it was to be installed: in the new Google campus in Sunnyvale! What a thrill it was to see its installation in a brand new building a few days before it opened. Unfortunately, I was not allowed to take photos of it in situ.


Oddly, I sold no original drawings or commissions in 2018. It’s neither good nor bad, it just “is”.

2019 promises to be just as busy. I already have workshops scheduled for January in Palo Alto and San Diego in April. I’ll be in Dallas in March for the spring CPSA national governing board meeting. I’m participating in all three weekends of Silicon Valley Open Studios in May. I’ll be a contributing artist in a new book that I can’t talk about yet. And I’ve already entered a few juried shows, waiting to hear whether any of my entries were accepted.

Whether you’re an artist, a collector, a doodler, or a non-art friend, I hope 2019 brings you more creativity. The older I get, the more I believe that a creative outlet of some type is important for all of us.

Happy New Year!

A great new interview

I’m pleased to share this great interview of me about my art by Creative Catalyst Productions! They asked me some challenging and refreshing questions that I had to put some thought into. A big “thank you!” to the folks for seeking me out for this opportunity!

IG promo-DeniseJHoward

You can follow Creative Catalyst on Facebook for more insightful interviews of artists about their creative process.

I’m not that Denise Howard

Over the past few weeks I’ve received several email inquiries asking if I’m “the Denise Howard who advertised for an art assistant.” I’m certainly not.

I know I’m not the only Denise Howard in the world, so I can understand how this would happen; if I was someone who saw the ad and was possibly interested, the first thing I’d do is google “Denise Howard artist” to see what information comes up. It so happens that everything that comes up is indeed about me–there’s nothing about any Denise Howard artist in Harrisburg, PA, where the ad originated.

After a few of these inquiries, I tracked down the ad in question, got the email address from it (a Gmail account; I don’t have a Gmail account) and sent a message to it. I got no response. The ad has since expired and disappeared and doesn’t seem to have been repeated. However, yesterday the story seems to have taken a more alarming turn: I received a message from someone as follows:

Ms. Howard, I believe there is a scam going around attaching itself to your name. They claim to be hiring a business assistant and then attempt to open a bank account in your own name. If this is in fact not a scam I apologize for bothering you. However, it seemed suspicious to me.

I thanked this person for alerting me, and urged them to contact the police if this happened to them, and make sure they understand it’s not me. I also contacted Google.

I’m writing this post so that if you’re another person wondering if the ad was mine, you’ll hopefully see this and know that not only was it not mine but that you probably shouldn’t respond to it.

Followup 8/30/2018: Today I received a message from a PNC Financial Services representative:

I wanted to thank you for your Blog about the personal assistant job offer in Harrisburg PA. I had a customer come in yesterday to open an account. I was able to stop her from being scammed because of your blog. Thanks so much!

Followup 9/5/2018: Today one of the potential victims provided me with a copy of the “employment contract” she received from “my” attorney. I did some research and called the CEO of the law firm. It turns out their corporate identity is being defrauded, too. Neither the email nor the contract shows the firm’s logo or address; they are a real estate law firm; they don’t do business in Pennsylvania; it is from someone who doesn’t work at the firm; and the email address it was sent from ends in .org.

Furthermore, the CEO recalled attending a scam-awareness presentation in which this very scenario was described: people are asked to open bank accounts or provide theirs. This gives scammers a way to route smaller sums of money around so as not to attract attention the way that large sums would. If the victims get wise, they attack the unwitting and surprised identity theft victim (in this case, me), not the real criminal. It’s a win-win for the scammer.

I have filed a complaint with the FBI.

Preventing artist injuries

This week I learned that THREE fellow colored pencil artists who draw a lot have been forced away from their drawing tables indefinitely by wrist, elbow and shoulder overuse injuries. In addition to the total ban on drawing, their doctors have told them to avoid all typing and wear splints. It’s making them very unhappy. A fourth artist friend is pushing on due to a deadline and figures she’ll take a short break when it’s past, and I fear she’ll end up joining them.

You might not think of drawing as a strenuous, injury-causing activity. But any activity that involves long periods in the same posture, making the same movements over and over, can lead to repetitive stress injuries such as tendonitis, tennis elbow, carpal tunnel syndrome, pinched nerves, and more. Potters, painters, illustrators, sculptors, digital artists and even tattoo artists are all at risk. Such injuries are sneaky; they develop very slowly and may already be bad before the first symptoms of tingling fingers, numbness, or reduced grip strength. Recovery usually requires complete cessation of the activities that caused the issue, and can take months, sometimes years.

So how do you prevent such injuries? There are entire books devoted to the subject, but here are a few tidbits that every artist should take to heart:

  • Take frequent breaks. Everyone is different, but for me, ten minutes every hour is about right. This does NOT mean “work for six hours and then take an hour break”!
  • During those breaks, stand up, move around, go for a walk, look out the window, do some simple stretches and exercises.


    I didn’t write this, it was a handout given at an art supply store. I keep it posted over my desk!

  • Work with as vertical a surface as you can, so you’re not hunched or bowed over a table. This will prevent neck, shoulder and upper back problems.
  • If you sit at a drawing table, use an adjustable-height chair that provides good lumbar support and allows your feet to be flat on the floor.
  • Use good lighting. Yes, your eyes can sustain long-term injury, too, because they are also operated by muscles! Full-spectrum lights, positioned to fully illuminate your work area without any glare, will help prevent eyestrain.
  • Get regular exercise. Getting your heart pounding, sweating a little, gulping in some fresh air and moving your body will boost your creativity, too! Vigorous hikes in nature are my favorite way to accomplish this.Here’s a personal anecdote to illustrate the power of exercise to combat chronic repetitive stress injury. This happened about 15 years ago when I taught group fitness classes as my “hobby job”. There was a guy who always attended the yoga class right before my interval training class. One day he stayed for my class. He looked kinda pissed off the whole time, but he finished the hour. I figured I’d never see him again. But he came back, and he kept coming back, always looking a little angry, never saying a word. After about a year and a half, one day he approached me at the end of class and said that my class had done wonders for him. He said he’d suffered with wrist, elbow and shoulder problems for years, had to wear wrist splints all the time at work, had been to multiple therapists, etc. But the interval training, with sets of just 12 repetitions of various dumbbell exercises between the work intervals, had somehow done the trick. He started with 1 lb. weights because that was all his wrists could stand, and now he was up to 12 lb. weights and didn’t need his splints at work anymore. I was blown away, and grateful that he shared his success to which I had unknowingly contributed!
  • Listen to your body. If you do start feeling tingling or numbness or pain in fingers, wrist, elbow, shoulder, neck, or upper back, stop what you’re doing and see your doctor. I’m serious. Your body is telling you that you’ve gone too far. These are not related to the discomfort you get from using too heavy a dumbbell for bicep curls, which goes away in 72 hours or so. Tingling and numbness usually signify that nerves are getting pinched by inflammation.

Finally, here are some links to further information to help you understand how to make your drawing activity more comfortable and less hurtful in the long run:

Ergonomics for Artists

Working Posture for Craftsmen

Paul Fricke (cartoonist) blog post on ergonomics for artists

Setting up an ergonomic chair

What makes a chair ergonomic

I hope this helps prevent the list of my artist friends who are out of commission from overuse injuries from getting longer!